Review of Isaac Julien's Lessons of the Hour, Art Monthly, October 2021
Described as ‘a poetic meditation on the life and times of Frederick Douglass’, Lessons of the Hour is a ten-screen film installation in which Douglass’s extensive time spent campaigning for abolition of slavery in the US, in the UK, and in particular (for the purposes of Julien’s work), Scotland, is revisited, imagined, and perhaps most importantly, presented in the context of the present-day ongoing struggle for the civil rights and human dignity of black people. The work ‘proposes a contemplative journey into Douglass' zeitgeist and its relationship to contemporaneity.’ The ten screens on which Lessons of the Hour is presented are of various sizes. The format evokes, in the words of the installation’s publicity, ‘the style of a 19th century salon hang, and combining tableaux vivants which imagine Douglass with key figures from his public and private life, with montaged footage from recent times, weaving together present and past.’
The multiscreen/size technique dramatically increases our appreciation of the ways in which the works tells not one story, but many. At times, the screens all project the same filmic content momentarily, though on such occasions each screen noticeably differs from its neighbours on account of factors such as timing, angles and distances at which the content is filmed, and so on. Though Lessons of the Hour is for the most part new and very recently recorded film in colour, Julien makes cogent and occasional use of monochromatic archival footage, such as that of locomotives traversing terrain.
Indeed, one of the central motifs of Lessons of the Hour is the locomotive – readable, of course, as a signifier of journeys. Literal journeys taken by Douglass from one town or city to another across the UK and Scotland, metaphoric journeys of discovery and rediscovery by us as viewers, and journeys back in time performed by Julien’s film. In lavish sets Lessons of the Hour presents Douglass in what is noticeably a plush, first-class train compartment, his wife as his travelling companion, able to travel in comfort and take hotel lodgings in these foreign parts without fear of the racist denial of access to such things, as was routinely and systemically the case for African Americans in so much of 19th century America. This sense of the UK and Scotland as simultaneously places in which Douglass’s humanity and intellect is recognised, and spaces in which his activism and anti-slavery agitation could be advanced, are important and recurring aspects of the installation.